These pre-election contacts have existed for 50 years. The UK system of elections sees an immediate handover of power if a change of government occurs and then a rush to get the government going. Different mechanisms have evolved to mitigate this hasty handover. But not enough thought has gone into how those mechanisms might work best.
The contacts are a limited activity. They allow the Opposition to explain major policy plans and therefore allow civil servants to consider what will be involved in shifting machinery, people and plans to adjust to the new government if one occurs. Back in 1963-64 Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home was the first to allow them when it became clear that Labour had major plans for a new economic department.
From the start, such contacts were highly ambiguous. The Civil Service serves the government of the day up to the election, thinking ahead about what might happen under a different government may seem wrong. But in fact, effective government has to think longer term. For civil servants it’s about being prepared, as the permanent part of government, whoever their future masters are. Back in 1963-64 it was recognised that the civil service also had a guardianship role. Douglas-Home’s Principal Private Secretary, Sir Tim Bligh, saw them as a contribution to more effective government:
'The Civil Service are servants of the Queen and serve the Government of the day. They cannot also serve the Opposition. But there is a real problem here and the nation’s well-being might be seriously affected and this is because a newly elected Prime Minister has, in practice, very little time to form an administration… There is every possibility of a hasty ill-thought out decision being taken which might, as well as rebounding to the discredit of the new administration, do real harm to the country.'
Since that precedent, the pre-election contacts have also experienced the downside of ambiguity. In April 1970 the contacts first came into the open and a row arose over reports that the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson had imposed a ‘gag’ on Conservatives meeting with senior civil servants, in direct contravention to the access Douglas-Home had granted. Some Conservatives made attempts to meet with senior public servants that went beyond the original remit and were not part of pre-election policy plans. In a fevered political atmosphere (the election was in June) both sides sought to make political capital out of the consultations. Thanks to the row Wilson set out more stringent rules for when the contacts could occur. Again, it was a case of specifying their role in providing forewarning of policy plans and avoiding giving advice or revealing government policy. Clearer advice did not itself hamper the contacts, but the political row did.
Looking back at how the pre-election contacts operated in 2010, it is clear that trust and good intentions on all sides made for the most effective contacts. Firstly, even if incumbent ministers fear or oppose the contacts they cannot entirely prevent them, but it makes for a difficult situation as permanent secretaries want to be loyal to the government they serve (and may continue to serve). Secondly, the system relies on the expertise of permanent secretaries to avoid giving policy advice or on touching upon confidential details of the government’s policies. The dividing lines are more ambiguous in practice than the rules imply, but the professionalism needed is part of a permanent secretary’s role and they usually manage it well. Thirdly, the contacts also work best when shadows have clear priorities about policies, but are also willing to consider the policy landscape beyond their manifesto plans that will still have to be addressed.
And finally, these discussions are about preparing to translate policies into effective government post-election. This means that both sides need to expect implementation of policies to come up in the talks. This preparation only takes a prospective government so far and the talks are only a small part of that. However, the pre-election discussions should be a first opportunity to think about what might not be so easy, what might need more work, as well as the first chance for the Civil Service to show that – whoever wins the election – they are ready to serve.